11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
This is probably the most well-known parable of them all and challenging to make some comment on it that hasn’t been made a thousand times before and better. But allow me a moment to offer some ideas on reading the parables. First, in reading and understanding the parables it helps to be a good story teller or reader of stories, so the more stories we read or movies we watch the better. Give it some thought and you can figure out what makes a good story for you. We’ll also see how good movies or novels move different people in different ways. The best stories are the ones that allow a multitude of ways in towards understanding.
No good story has only one meaning.
On the evidence of the parables Jesus was a master story-teller. And it seems reasonable to assume therefore that there are multiple ways in to understanding a parable and not just one meaning. And often the routes to understanding shift as we get older or experience more of life, and this means we can return again and again to the parables and see new things in them. The new thing doesn’t undermine the truth of other perspectives we had in the past, it adds a layer to them.
A second thing to say is that very often Jesus leaves a parable unfinished (we saw that yesterday in the parable of the great Banquet). The unfinished element is where we can insert ourselves.
Today I want you to consider the possibility of a different way of reading this parable. It comes at the end of a set of three parables of lost things. In the first two the shepherd and the woman are responsible for losing something valuable which they shouldn’t have lost. They conduct a frantic search, find it and throw a party. It is reasonable to carry the same structure over into this parable.
If this is the case then we could consider the possibility that the father in the story is responsible for being careless by losing something valuable. In the first story the shepherd loses 1% of what was in his charge (one sheep out of one hundred). In the second story, the woman loses 10% of what was in her charge (one coin out of ten). In the third story the father loses 100% of what was under his own roof…his two sons.
Uniting a sheep with its flock is easy as is returning a coin to a purse. But with all the hurt and damage done in a dysfunctional household, the reconciliation is not as easy and demands a great deal of grace, forgiveness and patience on the part of those who are estranged.
And so to the unfinished part of this parable. The careless father meets his older son outside his house, he insists on relational language (compare verse 30 with verses 31-32), and assures him of his inheritance. The big issue for the parable is what happens next?
Take some time with this parable to imagine possible outcomes. What options are open to the older son? What about the younger son? Now imagine the story many years into the future, the morning after the father has died and the older boy inherits the land. What happens on that morning in large part depends on decisions made on the evening of the young boy’s return from his time away, many years previously.
Reconciling human beings is nowhere near as easy as reconciling sheep or coins. It takes courageous decisions which sometimes entail not getting what you’re entitled to in order to ensure better relationships. It often takes many, many years, indeed sometimes the best outcome for troubled relationships is a decision to set a trajectory rather than a destination or outcome.
Think of a troubled relationship in your life, one that has perhaps caused frustration or pain or one where you have difficulty reconciling yourself to its loss. If, today, you were released from the need to have a reconciliation, what would it look like to imagine setting a trajectory towards reconciliation?